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Decisions about how to conserve the Lutyens cathedral model

Conservator reaching inside the main dome of the model

Conservator Bernie Morgan, marking the position of the high altar in the model 

Like the actual building that was based on it, the interior of Lutyens' model for Liverpool's catholic cathedral was never finished. The intricate work took longer than expected and over-ran the budget. The interior was also held up by a change of plan for the sanctuary. Finding the model cumbersome and expensive to transport and erect, the cathedral authorities refused Lutyens’s repeated requests for further funds to complete it.

When the model was presented to the Walker Art Gallery's collections in 1975 only the interior area under the dome was complete and painted. The high altar and sanctuary remained an empty shell, as work had never started on these areas.

At the start of the project to conserve the model, conservators considered doing no more than cleaning and strengthening the existing structure, leaving the model incomplete but entirely original. The final decision was to consolidate, repair and restore the existing model. Conservators would then take the project a stage further to complete the interior to Lutyens' final design.

The construction of the original model

The ethos of the project was that each new piece should be identical in its materials and construction and faithful to the original model. This posed an interesting problem. In the seventy years since the model was created, knowledge of the techniques used had effectively been lost. Wooden models of cathedrals have been created for centuries but surprisingly there is no written record of the construction techniques used. These methods ceased to be current practice shortly after the Liverpool model was built.

Understanding the construction of the model was the first essential step. The original model is constructed principally of solid timber in two distinct layers, the first forming the basic blocks and shapes, the second forming the intricate strings of mouldings, the arches and the columns. Plaster mouldings were used for the repetitive detail of the friezes and capitals. Glass and clear plastic was used for the windows the glazing bars were drawn on in paint. Paper and card made the coffering of the vaults. Perhaps as an experiment, use was made of cast metal details also on the interior vaults. Unusually the model has no interlocking joints making it distinct from a piece of cabinet making. The majority of the model was constructed using butt joints and traditional animal-derived glues with a sparing use of nails or screws. As the glue has deteriorated the model has become increasingly fragile.

The future display and storage needs of the model

Modern conservation takes a holistic approach and the future display, transport and storage have been taken into consideration.

The original creators never solved how people were going to see inside the model. Conservators have now reconfigured the model onto seven new baseboards, to allow it to be divided to view the interior. To minimise future handling damage the model has been permanently mounted on to wheeled steel frames which can be enclosed for transport and storage.

Further information

Next read about how conservators recreated lost techniques.